Sep 18, 2012
Ohio family grows with the market

Three farms. Four thousand acres. Thirty-five commodities grown. Another 30 or so bought from other growers. Those numbers give a sense of the size and complexity of Buurma Farms, based in Willard, Ohio.

In the busy season, Buurma Farms, which also has growing operations in Michigan and Georgia, ships between 15,000 and 25,000 packages of produce a day. Destinations range from Boston to Miami, and as far west as the Mississippi River (occasional radish shipments go to California, too), said Loren Buurma, company treasurer and one of the 12 partners – all family – who run the business.

The fourth and fifth generations are currently in charge. Founder Frank Buurma, a Dutch immigrant, saw the potential of north-central Ohio’s muck soils and started farming in the Willard region in 1896, said Bruce Buurma, Loren’s brother and another partner.

The farm’s crop mix has shifted over the years, reflecting America’s changing diet. The popularity of bagged salads has eaten into the Buurmas’ lettuce and radish sales – radishes are down by half from their heyday. Crops like cilantro and green onions, however, are selling more, thanks to the increasing popularity of salsa products, Bruce said.

“Cilantro is our most profitable crop right now,” he said.

Others include sweet corn, beets, dill, parsley, celery, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, carrots, peppers and onions, according to the farm’s website.

If they don’t need to sell at least 50 acres’ worth of a crop, they don’t bother growing it, Loren said.

“We don’t need 50 acres of kohlrabi,” he said. “We can just buy it from somebody.”

Traceablity

Joel Buurma, the company’s food safety manager, said Buurma Farms can trace each box of produce from the field in which it originated to the customer. Its traceability system – which includes manual labeling, satellite mapping, scanners and computer software – records every step from start to finish.

The farm uses a coding system that identifies Buurma-grown produce, as well as produce the company purchases from other growers. The information includes seed lot, variety, time of planting, any sprays or fertilizer applied, field of origin and date of harvest. Every box of produce has a sticker with a code on it and pallet tags are also used.

The system has evolved over time, driven by internal and customer needs, he said.

The farm’s food safety program includes Good Agricultural Practices, Good Manufacturing Practices and Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points. Buurma hired a food safety consultant to help it achieve PrimusGFS certification in 2010. That’s also when Joel became the food safety manager, he said.

Food safety costs the company millions of dollars, but a single outbreak could toss 116 years of history out the window, Bruce said.

Labor

During peak season, more than 350 people work at the home farm in Ohio. There’s housing for 220 employees, while the rest rent locally. The majority of the workers are migrants. When they show up for the season, the economic impact is huge. Local businesses count on it, Bruce said.

Most of the farm’s workers used to be local high school kids, but school and sports took them away, Bruce said.

In peak season, the Michigan and Georgia operations employ between 100 and 150 people each, Loren said.

Vicky Sanders handles payroll for all three Buurma operations. She dealt with almost 800 W-2 forms last year, she said. The company uses a computer program called DataTrack, originally invented for big farms in California, to pay its employees.

Sanders gave a brief description of how it works: Every employee has a badge with a computer chip. A crew boss uses a probe to read the badge information. The bosses bring their probes to Sanders every morning, and she downloads the information for payroll purposes. The program saves time, is accurate and gives detailed information about each individual. She can also separate data by crew to show what each crew did and how long it took.

“This probe system is as good as your crew bosses,” Sanders said. “I think we have some of the greatest crew bosses out there. They picked it up very quickly.”

For more information, visit www.buurmafarms.com.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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